The summer of 1980 my friend Lance and I were hired to disassemble and discard furniture from the guest rooms of an old hotel that was being renovated. We spent all day hauling stained mattresses and cheap, particle board nightstands to a dumpster in the parking lot. It was hot, backbreaking work and I was constantly imagining ways to get out of it.
One day I convinced Lance that, instead of throwing it away, we should try to sell the used furniture. I had a background in sales, so I volunteered to manage the operation while Lance handled inventory. I hand-painted a large sign that read “Luxury Hotel Furniture For Sale.” We soon realized there wasn’t much of a market for our offerings and it looked like I might have to re-join Lance doing the manual labor until one day Lance found a stash of magazines under one of the mattresses. It looked like the Library of Congress in adult literature- Penthouse, Playboy, Chic, Oui, Modern Man.
Being a nimble entrepreneur, I pivoted to peddling smut. After word reached the male, aged 13-17 demographic, business was brisk. In fact, demand outstripped supply and soon we were sitting on top of an extra $200. Lance and I briefly disagreed about how to divide our tainted lucre, until we spotted a small sailboat for sale by the side of the road. Neither of us knew how to sail, but I carried this notion that sailing was a rich man’s sport and the price tag of $300 seemed like a reasonable entry point to a hobby I would clearly need to learn.
The seller took $200 and our promise to pay the additional $100 in a month.
Lance and I were about to embark on another endeavor in indentured servitude when my friend Blake told me about an opening for a clerk at his dad’s law firm downtown. I idolized Blake’s dad and was hopeful this might turn into a long term play.
My first morning I met the receptionist, Edith, who introduced me to the head of the file room. His name was Vuong but everyone called him Vu, except for the senior partner in the firm, Jimmie Sellers, who, I would later find out, called him “You.”
He was a diminutive Vietnamese refugee who ran the file room with an iron fist.
“Vu, this is Timmy. He’ll be working as a clerk this summer,” Edith explained.
“Vu has been with us for almost 5 years. He’s from Vietnam” said Edith.
Then she leaned in and whispered, “Vu’s a boat person.”
Having recently purchased a boat myself, I trapped that personal nugget in my Dale Carnegie brain in case I ever needed to use it to build rapport with Vu.
“Dis copy machine,” he said as he pointed to what appeared to be a coffee maker.
“Every morning make copy, and keep make it all day,” he continued.
I didn’t follow along too closely because I knew it was only a matter of time before I was asked to engage in more important law firm endeavors. But for the time being at least, Vu appeared to be my boss.
Vu was a tough taskmaster and always the first one in the office. I did my best to be on time but even on the days I slid in just under the gun, Vu wasn’t impressed.
“Almo tardy,” he would say as he pointed at his wristwatch.
From the outset, Vu eyed me with quiet suspicion, as if I were a threat to his job. He didn’t realize the file room was merely a brief interlude on my way to a job as a real clerk, whatever that might be.
It didn’t help that I had to ask Vu to repeat himself more than either of us were comfortable. His English was a frequent source of frustration. He had an impressive vocabulary but his sentences were sprinkled with mispronunciations, malapropisms, disordered grammar and, in rare moments, mild cursing.
He would also frequently double check my work, a native English speaker, to make sure I put files in their proper order, as if I didn’t know my own alphabet.
“I find dis Robins file behind dis Robinson file. It go in front.”
“Okay Dewey Decimal” I wanted to say, “Whatever.”
Vu had a tiny, makeshift desk tucked away in the corner of the file room. A small, framed photo of his wife and children and a reproduction of a watercolor painting of the Oklahoma State Capitol were the only personal adornments. My promotion was taking longer than I hoped so I decided to try break the ice.
“Are those your kids?”
Vu smiled proudly and pointed.
“Yes. Dat Dat. And Dat Bich.”
I was unsure whether he meant “dat” as the definite article “that” or whether his kids were named “Dat Dat” and “Dat Bich” so my feigned interest in his family as a segue to deeper conversations came to an abrupt end.
“Nice painting,” I offered.
“You know Greg Burn?” he asked.
“Sure. I’ve heard of him.”
Greg Burns was a well-known Oklahoma artist who, unable to use his arms due to a muscular abnormality, painted Oklahoma landmarks by clasping the brush between his teeth.
“He pain dat,” Vu said proudly.
Vu’s acclimation to his adopted State of Oklahoma was apparent in other ways. Every morning he would read the local newspaper and offer, to no one in particular, a comment about the minor league baseball team, the Oklahoma City 89ers.
“Dis no very good baseball team. Dey play like Bill’s shit,” he would murmur.
After a few weeks of demonstrating my proficiency with the alphabet, Vu trusted me to venture outside the office.
“Dis need to file at district clerk.”
I hoped this would provide a brief emancipation from Vu’s fiefdom. Turned out, his influence was widely cast.
“Wait. So this is from Sellers & Hyder law firm?” one clerk asked as I awaited her file-mark stamp.
“Yes. Is there are problem?”
“You’re not Vu.”
That seemed to get the attention of the other clerks.
“Where’s Vu?” asked one.
“Yeah what happened to Vu?” they all wondered, with a tone suggesting I had recently dumped his body in the Canadian River.
“I’m working there this summer. I’ll be handling the filing for awhile.”
My attempt at grandiosity fell flat.
“Tell Vu hello!”
“Yes, tell Vu we’ll miss him.”
This ode to Vu would become a daily occurrence, one that would strain my formerly liberal views on immigration. The district clerks weren’t the only ones who showed a preference for Vu.
Vu was taking a smoke break one morning when the file room phone rang.
“File room,” I answered.
“Get down here.”
Other than the caller’s brusque manner, there was no way to identify who this was or where “here” might be. I decided to ask the receptionist.
“Hey Edith. Some guy just called the file room and asked me to get down there.”
“I’m not sure who it was.”
“What was the extension?”
“Didn’t catch that.”
Edith didn’t have much to go on. Still, she tried to be helpful.
“What did he say?”
“Come down here,” I repeated.
“Did he say ‘Come down here’ or ‘get down here?’”
“Now I’m not so sure.”
“What did he sound like?”
“Old. Oh, and mean.”
Edith cyphered my scant description to likely be Jimmie Sellers, though there were several candidates from whom to choose.
“Last office on the left” she said.
I hadn’t yet met the firm’s founder so I was eager to make his acquaintance and a good first impression. When I knocked on the door, I was surprised to see Methusalah’s twin brother swivel to greet me.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Where’s you?” he interrupted, though at 137 years of age I could see why he was a man of little patience.
“Excuse me, who?”
“You! That’s who!”
I stopped to consider whether I was playing the straight man in the opening stanza of an Abbot & Costello routine.
“Um… I’m not sure. But can I help?”
Mr. Sellers handed me a certificate that read “Lifetime Achievement Award.”
“Give this to You. He’ll know what to do.”
Edith was able to clarify that Mr. Sellers always mispronounced Vu’s name as “You.” That might have been helpful going in, I thought.
When Vu returned from his cigarette break, I handed him Mr. Sellers’ certificate.
“He want lemonade. We no lemonade. Take to Kinko,” said Vu.
This miscommunication Bill’s shit was still a problem. Nonetheless, I did exactly as I was instructed.
“Can you lemonade?” I asked the Kinko’s employee.
“Ah. Is this from Vu?”
“Yeah sure no problem. Come back in an hour.”
When I returned I was handed the glistening certificate, beautifully laminated.
I seemed to be the only one who couldn’t penetrate the language barrier or Vu’s hard shell. Save for whatever indecipherable instructions Vu might impart, most of the time we sat for mind numbingly long periods of silence. My few attempts at conversation were met with either a nod or a single word.
In the late afternoons, Vu would sit at his desk and read the files. He devoured everything- the petitions, the briefs, the deposition transcripts. Vu idolized Steve Dudley, head of the firm’s insurance defense practice. Dudley liked to brag about his legal conquests to an admiring Vu, imbuing Vu with Dudley’s own self-righteous disdain for plaintiffs of any stripe.
Mostly, Vu would concentrate on the worker’s compensation files. Dudley defended employers who were trying to prove that an on the job injury wasn’t as disabling as the worker (or, in many cases, worker’s attorney) claimed.
One day Vu broke the afternoon somnolence.
“You have see dis ting.”
Vu recited the gruesome details of a man who lost an eye when a glob of red hot slag splashed up from a vat in a steel mill. Vu, unduly influenced by Dudley’s defense lawyer callousness, was unsympathetic.
“Maybe dat why God give him two eye.”
This soon became my afternoon entertainment: Vu reciting the facts of a case coupled with his personal assessment of its merits.
In one case, a man was claiming permanent disability due to the traumatic amputation of his left leg in some horrible industrial accident.
“Dis guy bricklayer.” Then he’d give a dismissive laugh. “Not so hard.”
Because of Vu’ s own experience narrowly escaping a war torn country dusted with agent orange and his admiration for a prolific, disabled artist who painted with his teeth, a blue collar worker with a broken back sounded like a coddled infant.
“Dis guy full of Bill’s shit. He say he not can work. But he on video change flat tire.” Vu shook his head and continued, “Mr. Dudley going to put video up man butt sideway.”
Having emigrated from a third world country, I was concerned that Vu was unfamiliar enough with our legal system to know whether that was an available remedy. I started to tell him it was just a figure of speech.
But then Vu delved into more arcane issues of the case and I realized he knew exactly what was at play.
“He just need sit/stand option,” Vu offered as a resolution to one matter.
Or “Why he tink it take two hand do piece work?” he would wonder aloud about another.
I actually began to look forward to these afternoon briefing sessions. Vu enjoyed having an audience, and it seemed like we finally made a connection.
As the summer wore on, we settled into an easy, climate-controlled routine, interrupted occasionally by some trifling errand.
One afternoon in late July, I was just back from the clerk’s office and about to head home when Vu approached, looking ashen.
“Mrs. Black want to see you.”
Sharon Black was the sole female partner at the firm and to be strictly avoided.
“What does she want?” I asked.
“She not tell. I am sorrow.”
When I got to Mrs. Black’s office she was all business.
“Shut the door!” she ordered.
After I complied, she continued.
“Get on your hands and knees!”
Whoa, easy there Mrs. Robinson, I thought. And while obedience was not my strong suit, I did what I was told.
She stood up from behind her desk and all I could see was the hem of her wool, navy skirt, her compression panty hose and her scuffed, orthotic, lady-lawyer shoes. Not yet a scene worthy of Penthouse Forum, but I was willing to see what developed.
She walked over and used her hands to approximate the width of my shoulders. Then she crouched down and put one hand on my back and one on the floor to measure my height on all fours.
“You should fit,” she said. “Get up.”
She scribbled her address on a piece of paper.
“Meet me here at 7:00 p.m.”
Two hours later I found myself pulling up to a stately Tudor home in Crown Heights. Mrs. Black was on her front porch standing next to a freakishly large Doberman.
“My husband and I are leaving tomorrow for a few days. I need you to come by every morning and evening to feed Zeus.”
She kept Zeus on a short leash as we walked to the side of the house where she showed me how to latch and unlatch the gate. I failed to pay as close attention as I probably could have.
“Make sure this is always locked behind you,” I believe she may have said.
We ended up on her back porch. She pointed to a doggie door.
“We don’t let anyone have keys to our home so that’s where you’ll have to enter and exit. Zeus’s food is in a large can next to the counter. Three scoops per feeding. No sudden movements. We’ll be back Friday afternoon.”
For a guy seeking a quiet place to drink beer and hide from the man who was still looking for the final payment on our sailboat, this would fit the bill nicely.
Lance and I spent most of Wednesday evening on Mrs. Black’s back porch trying to come up with more money-making ideas. When I went for Thursday morning’s feeding, my stomach dropped. The gate was open. I called for Zeus. Gone. I conducted a brief, frantic search of the neighborhood. Nothing. Then I drove to work and told Vu.
“Very not good.”
Vu promised to handle the file room duties while I continued my search. Thursday evening gave way to Friday morning, my day of reckoning. When I got to work, Vu was smiling.
“Good new. I call dog pound. Dey has Zeus.”
“Vu! Thank you, thank you!”
I sped to the animal shelter where I found an unsmiling attendant.
“I’m here to pick up Zeus.”
“What is Zeus?”
“Do you have proof of ownership?”
“It’s my boss’s dog. I have to get him back home as soon as possible.”
“Sorry but I need some proof.”
I called Vu and explained the situation.
“Let me see what it take.”
Thirty minutes later Vu showed up with a photo of Zeus and a bill from the Oklahoma City water department. Fortuitously, Vu was able to fit in the doggie door as well.
When he arrived at the pound, he made quick work of the matter.
“Address on collar match dis water bill. And I have dis picture. Oklahoma statute say dis enough to proo owner.”
The attendant knew that Vu had the goods. He had no choice but to release Zeus. I deposited him home without a moment to spare.
Back at the office, Vu laughed at my close call.
“You almost get put in butt sideway.”
Later that day, I invited Vu to go sailing. I felt like I owed him a favor for saving Zeus, and my legal career.
I drove the boat to Lake Hefner and met Vu. We both awkwardly waited for the other to take the helm. It occurred to me that we were equals in terms of sailing abilities. So we just pushed out about 25 yards and sat, idle on the still water, while we drank our beers under a stubborn sun.
“Thanks again for your help with Zeus.”
Vu nodded. “Dat what friend do.”
“You tied that guy in knots. Would you ever want to be a lawyer? You’d be a great one.”
“No. Lawyer never seem happy.”
“What would you like to do then? You don’t want to work in the file room the rest of your life. You’re way too smart for that.”
“It not so bad. But not for long time. I like baseball. Maybe coach 89er team. Dey shit.” He paused. “Or get my own lawsuit. Make lot of money.”
Then Vu wondered.
“You still tink you want be lawyer?”
“Probably. I’m not really sure.”
“Dat okay. You get do what you want,” said Vu. “America greatest country in the world.”
This was a common refrain among refugees, but Vu didn’t know what I knew; couldn’t see what I saw. Sure, the United States had its advantages, but it was a work in progress and still woefully lacking in terms of racial equality, celebrity chefs, and Star Wars sequels.
However, those problems were for a later time and place. This evening, at the end of another long summer day, it was just Vu and me, two boat people, each eager to someday pursue our own version of the American dream.