“The Walrus asked if this missing person had Down syndrome and was I his caretaker? I’m his Job Coach, I said, and he’s hardly a missing person. I only misplaced him five minutes ago!”
I’d been working at Vernon Employment Services for five days when Young Chul Kim ran away. His head was shaved and his jeans were typically hiked up past his belly button. I still have a picture of him somewhere, printed off the crappy inkjet at the office, that I had to carry around with me in case of emergencies.
The last I saw of him was the back of his head, so noticeably flat, as we walked into the San Francisco Main Library. It was 2 p.m. and I was killing time until the 3:15 drop off. It was just Chul and me. There was no excuse. A flyer caught my eye, or was it the homeless guy? Was that sweater he was wearing the one I’d mysteriously lost at the Laundromat two weeks ago? When I looked up, Chul was gone. I scoured the lobby of the library, but saw only strangers, a blur of unfamiliar figures holding books and traipsing in every direction. Fifth day on the job, client lost. What was wrong with me? He was a small guy with Down’s, who’d been drifting around adult service programs for the last fifteen years. I’d been planning a quiet hour in the periodicals section with him distracted by food magazines. He would murmur, Hamurger, Ha-dog, Pee-za to himself and I could dip into the daily newspapers. Chul! I yelled, then immediately realized the futility of it all. Now I’d have to go searching for him in a panic and it was such a big, smelly library.
I hurriedly got out my folder of client information, which at this point looked new, without the notes written in pen—$0.75 R’s bus fare, $1.15 Diet Coke reinforcer—and tattered corners that would come later. At the information desk, the security guard looked like a walrus. His face was a thick square with sideburns hanging down. His wispy mustache stuck out like whiskers. What propelled them?
The Walrus was bored and tired when I showed him the picture of Chul. Had he seen him? Did he walk by the information desk? Which way? The Walrus took his time looking at the photograph. He held it close to his face and then moved it away, shifting it around to get the best possible library light. I think I’ve seen him before, he said. Great! He spoke into his walkie-talkie and another security guard came over. The second guard was enormous. He could barely fit into his uniform. His bulging biceps and pecs were about to break the seam of his shirt. He bent over the photograph, then seized it and held it up above his head to get a better look. The Walrus and the Giant whispered to each other. Behind them was a large sign:
NO SHOPPING CARTS
NO BATHING OR SHAVING IN THE BATHROOMS
NO EATING OR DRINKING OUTSIDE THE CAFETERIA
PLEASE REPORT LOST ITEMS TO SECURITY
I was starting to relax. Surely I’d done the right thing by reaching out to professionals. I was only twenty-two. I’d never had a job before beyond babysitting or working at the Smith College library. My parents, back in New York, were proud of me, that I’d found this, that I’d found anything at all. My brother thought it was a good start, at what he hadn’t said. And my girlfriend, Tona, with whom I’d moved across the country, thought it was great that I was doing something so “outside of myself,” as she said, that broke the seal on that intangible gloominess I sometimes got stuck in for days. The Walrus asked if this missing person had Down syndrome and was I his caretaker? I’m his Job Coach, I said, and he’s hardly a missing person. I only misplaced him five minutes ago! I knew that no one cared about my Job Coach title except me, but somehow it made me feel better. I wasn’t his caretaker or custodian. I was his Job Coach. I had a real job, the kind you’re supposed to have after four years of Liberal Arts college.
They talked some more with the Giant crouched over the Walrus. They told me protocol dictated a Code Red Library Search. I’d have to see the Security Manager about getting it underway. I’d have to go to the third floor, second door on the right. I was losing precious time, I told them. We’ve seen him before, the Walrus said, but not today. Not today? I wanted to scream. You told me you saw him, that’s why I’ve been standing here. He was just right here, right in front of me. I shook my head. Tears were starting. I was such a crybaby. If only I’d gone after him myself, I never would have lost this much time. I imagined the Missing Person signs that would have to go up, like the ones I’d seen littered around the city. Were these people ever found? I thought of Chul, whom I barely knew, entrusted to my care. He practiced martial arts with his father every morning at five and the only sign of aging on his body were those dry creases around his eyes. Now he was out there wandering the streets of San Francisco, vulnerable to the darkness that would befall the city at sunset, the crazies who might beset him, steal his backpack, beat him in a haze of their dysfunction or worse.
The Security Manager was on the phone when I stepped into his office. He motioned for me to sit down. Raspy voices were coming out of the walkie-talkie on his desk. I’m going on break, anyone want anything? Second floor women’s bathroom out of paper. Toilet paper or paper towels? There’s a shaver in the men’s room first floor. Full body or facial?
I sat down, leg shaking. The clock on the wall said 2:15. Fifteen minutes since I’d last seen Chul. Couldn’t this imbecile get off the phone? Got a library patron here, he said. Have to call you later.
“I hear you need to file a missing person report,” he said. “What is your relationship to this missing person?”
“I’m his Job Coach,” I said.
“I see. Special needs. Do you work for The Arc? Because my cousin works for The Arc. She said the benefits are good. One of my guards downstairs was thinking of joining up.”
The Walrus or the Giant?
“I work for Vernon Employment Services,” I said. “It’s only my fifth day on the job and I’ve got a client lost in this library. If you could start the search.”
“Right. Right. A Code Red Search. We’ll start that shortly. But first tell me a bit about this missing person.”
“His name is Chul. He’s about five feet or a little less. He’s got Down syndrome. He’s Korean. Korean born, but he’s been living in San Francisco since he was nine. He’s thirty-eight.”
“What language does he speak?”
“Not really any language. He says a few words in English and Korean, but that’s it.”
“My guards will get on it. We’ll search high and low for your guy. The chances of finding a lost person are always best within the first few hours.”
I thought of all the bad things I’d done. I’d been selfish. I’d been drunk. I’d stolen. I’d gotten into fights. I’d taken pills. I was surely being punished. I didn’t want to think about any of it now. All I wanted was for him to be back at my side, singing what I thought of as “Korean Songs” even though I didn’t know any Korean to know for sure. I wanted to call Tona, but she was at work. She had the kind of job where you couldn’t answer your phone at work. But what could she do anyway? I’d done this to myself.
I rode the elevator back to the lobby and it stunk of pee. It was 2:32. Chul lost for 32 minutes. I’d have to call the office. I’d have to call his sister. I’d have to write up a lengthy incident report tonight when I got home.
A woman I’d never seen before was at the security desk. Where’s the Walrus? Where’s the Giant?
“They’re off doing a Code Red Library Search,” she said.
I sighed. It was finally happening. He had to be in the library somewhere.
“Do you have a security issue?”
“I’m responsible for the Code Red,” I told her. “It’s my client that’s lost.”
“They’re on it now,” she said. “Nothing to do but wait.”
I walked the library. I saw the Walrus chatting with the librarian in the children’s reading room. He waved to me. I saw the Giant having a sandwich in the cafeteria. He called me over and gave me back Chul’s photograph. There was a bit of mayo on the right corner. Couldn’t find him, he said. Must’ve left. He took a drink of soda. There was a group of clients with their Job Coach walking through the art gallery adjacent to the cafeteria. He was pointing to a painting of a bicycle and talking. His clients stared blankly. I wondered how long he’d been at it.
I took the stairs and combed through the library floor by floor. There was an elderly woman sleeping with her head on a table in the Audiovisual Center. She had a shopping cart parked next to her full of bottles, cans, and plastic bags. I ran through the Children’s Reading Room. Hey! No running! the librarian yelled. Have you seen this person? I showed her Chul’s photograph. She hadn’t. In the Circulating Periodicals Collection there was a picnic underway at a table hidden behind a tall shelf of stale magazines. It was dark back there because the periodicals blocked the light. A couple in their twenties were cracking open cans of ginger ale and had sandwich fixings spread out—ham, cheese, mustard, bread. I held up the paper image of Chul. They hadn’t. In the Gay and Lesbian Center on the fourth floor a couple of guys were cuddled together sleeping in a large armchair. One of them was snoring gently. I held up the photo. Another group of clients and their Job Coach were walking through the fifth floor gallery of Book Arts and Special Collections. I showed the four of them my picture of Chul. Had they seen him? No one had. I thought their Job Coach might take a special interest. Weren’t we in this together? Hadn’t she been through this before? She just smiled and said they had to be going.
It was time. I called the office. My supervisor Dawn answered and I could see it all. Her tired face with premature crow’s feet. The bare office walls because my boss, Patricia, didn’t believe in showing personality at work. The stained carpet because it wasn’t in the budget to get the carpets cleaned professionally, just enough to buy carpet cleaner and have the clients give them an ineffective scrub.
“How long’s he been lost?”
“You gave them a description then?”
“That’s good you had the photo with you. I’ll let Patricia know about the situation.”
“Hey, Patricia!” Dawn yelled. “Alex lost Chul at the Main Library!”
“She says you should walk around the library looking for him until 3:15. Then you can go home.”
“Go home? Won’t I need to find him first?”
“Hey, Patricia! Won’t she need to find him first?”
“She says he’ll find his way home eventually. They always do.”
They always do? I was glad for the comfort, but how could she really know for sure? Chul was new to Vernon, so all we had was his case file and a trail of social workers. What if he was the first one to get away? Then I’d be responsible for a lost, truly lost, developmentally disabled person.
I left the lobby. I left the library. I saluted the Walrus and the Giant who were back at the desk, their desk, as I walked out. The Giant had crumbs on his navy blue security uniform and the Walrus was moving the antenna of his walkie-talkie through his whiskers. Out in the light on Hyde Street, the smell of urine hit me. The smell of fries from Burger King. The cigarette smoke from the men sitting on cardboard boxes. The beverages spilled out into the gutter—green, purple, blue. San Francisco’s brightness at 3:14 p.m. in downtown, on the edge of the Tenderloin.
I walked briskly. I passed a man in front of the BART Station on Market and Hyde begging for change. I walked faster. Down Market Street toward the Bay. Away from the single occupancy hotels. I didn’t know my way around San Francisco all that well yet. I still relied on the map, already crumpled, that Patricia had given me my first day, when she’d said, “I can tell you really care. Welcome to the circus.” Patricia hadn’t seemed to care about Chul just now, but she did. She cared about all the clients in her own rough way. She’d want a full report tomorrow. I’d be reprimanded once it all was over. Would I be fired? There was no way to know. No one had told me in my half-day orientation if you still had a job or not after losing a client.
The tourists were out shopping. It was a mass of shopping bags. I scanned for Chul. I looked for his face amidst Prada, Zara, Anthropolgie, Banana Republic. I wanted so badly to find him. He could be asking some confused Dutch tourist to tie his shoe. Or he would be talking to a mall security person outside the SF Shopping Center, asking if today was Saturday. Or he would be all alone, breaking an imaginary object and yelling, Broken! Cell phone broken! Show-uh broken! Uh oh uh oh broken! Broken! Broken!
My walk became a trot. I was gliding in and out of holes in the crowd. It felt like a high school basketball drill.
I started running. I was getting a hot, nauseous feeling in my mouth, but I kept going. Past the trolley cars screeching down Market. Past a group of developmentally disabled people guided by a couple of Job Coaches. I shook my head at them. Large group outings were frowned upon at Vernon Employment Services. It increased stigmatization and led to clients getting lost. Getting lost! I lost Chul. Chul was lost. Lost in this new city of San Francisco. He could be anywhere. He could be in a public bathroom. He loved to go the bathroom. I ducked into the bathroom at the SF Shopping Center. No Chul. I ducked in at Starbucks. On both Powell and Montgomery. No Chul.
I was back on Market. Breathing hard in an ocean of strangers. It was the Main Library all over again, only bigger. It was hopeless. I screamed out Chul! and no one heard me.
I slumped down on a cement block. This was San Francisco’s idea of a bench. They were scattered around downtown, all over the city, offering respite to business people, wayward drinkers, and Job Coaches. I’d never sat on one before. Who knew who’d pissed on it five minutes ago? How could you tell if lice awaited your tush and backpack? I was feet away from the curb, feeling the rush of traffic blow by—the whistling of bicycles, cracking of cars, and whaling of buses. I groaned as a beast of a 71 came to a stop only feet away. It was doubled in size with its rear tottering. It blocked the sun. A warm, dirty breeze swept over me. The bus beep beep beeped as the stairs were lowered. Passengers got on. I thought of Chul, riding the bus with him that morning. He’d called out, Ala!—his name for me—every five minutes of the ride. We’d been sitting only seats away. Each time someone would ask him if he was okay. I’d give a discrete wave. He’d point. Ala! Ala! he’d yell. The 71 beep beep beeped as the stairs came up. It closed its doors and was gone.
A van pulled up alongside me and honked. I lurched towards it. I stumbled away from it. Surely it hadn’t meant to honk at me. Who did I know with a van? Vans were used by other organizations, to transport their clients. But not Vernon! We were a community-based program. I stared at the tinted windows and then looked away. It’s white doors slung open and Chul’s father and sister got out. They walked towards me expectantly and I stood still, wondering how this could possibly be. Why did I have to bump into them today of all days? It was a fluke. A freak accident. Each afternoon at 3:15 I deposited Chul on the 71 in Downtown and he waved to me as the bus thumped toward home. It was his sole act of independence. His family didn’t pick him up in Downtown. It wasn’t part of the plan.
“Alex!” his sister called to me and waved.
I wanted to pretend I hadn’t heard her and just walk away.
“Oh, hi,” I said miserably.
“I just came from taking Dad to the dentist and then we saw you. Have you already put Chul on his bus? Is he headed home now?”
Chul’s father stood at her side with a big smile, not understanding much English. He waved kindly at me.
I looked around, hoping Chul would miraculously appear. He could be hiding behind the bus stop and suddenly leap out singing Korean songs. Or he could be casually crossing the street, mumbling, and then run when he saw us, with his arms maneuvering a swimmer’s stroke as I’d seem him do at the gym.
“Chul . . .” I said. “Chul . . .” I smiled. “Chul . . . ran away at the Main Library. He’s lost. I’ve been looking for him up and down Market.”
Chul’s father frowned. His sister groaned and translated. His father shook his head and waved his finger.
“Bad Chul,” he said.
Bad me, I thought. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Mother will be so worried,” his sister said. “He is her baby.”
I thought of their cancer-stricken mother at home looking out the window for Chul. No one told me it was cancer; I just knew she was sick and assumed. I wanted to pull out my hair, grovel at their feet. Instead I repeated apologies. I hoped it would never happen again.
They offered me a ride home. I said I’d take BART. They told me they’d call when he got home. I said I was sorry. They said not to worry, but their brows were tense. I said, yes please call. They said to have a good night. I watched them get into the van. They would think I was young, inexperienced. Instead of impressing them, as I’d hoped to, I was a disappointment. More than that, a failure. And I’d wanted so badly to be good at this.
I walked slowly down Market, instead of taking BART. How could they ever trust me again? That is, assuming he ever came home. Assuming I wasn’t fired tomorrow. But he had to. Patricia said they always did. Yet the Security Manager had said chances of finding a lost person dwindled with each passing hour.
The sun was starting to come down. The streets were calmer. I was cold. The wind flapped over my sweaty clothes. No one spoke to me. No one asked me for change. The man usually begging outside the Civic Center station, across the street from the Main Library, was gone. It was time to go home. I pointed my finger at the library. Bad library! I yelled. Never, ever will I take my clients there again. I promised. I swore. The lights were on in there but dim. Men sprawled outside the entrance on benches. I wasn’t close enough to smell them, but I imagined their odor. Alcohol and unwashed clothes. I ducked down into the BART station to go home. Then I popped back up. I couldn’t go home. Not while Chul was still out there job coach-less. Not while his family was anguished, waiting. They had another son stationed in Afghanistan. That was worry enough. I knew Chul missed his younger brother terribly and cried for days when he left for his last deployment.
I would continue pacing the streets, just like Chul, until I found him or until his sister called to tell me he’d arrived home. I walked. I glanced in at the sad, sad donut shop at Van Ness and Market, a terrible intersection with non-stop roaring traffic. Behind the glass, men and women sat around tables with slack jaws and sallow faces and yelled at each other. No Chul.
“Hey,” someone called. I turned around to find the Job Coach from the library—the one I’d shown Chul’s picture to.
“Did you find him?” she asked earnestly, as if we were old friends.
Where had her empathy been back there at the library?
“No, I haven’t found him . . . yet.” I said it sullenly and angled my face toward the ground.
“Because I saw a guy with Down’s go in there a couple hours ago when I was taking my clients home. I thought he might be yours.”
“In this place?” I motioned to the café.
“It was hours ago.”
I was shaking. There was a chance. I said goodbye. She wished me luck. I walked in. The fumes of sugary dough enveloped me. The patrons smiled. A woman with an emaciated, bony face, the kind that came from meth, gave me a friendly nod. A man in ancient-looking denim with donut flakes around his mouth said a big donut-filled hello. The woman behind the register, her crusty apron strapped to her like body armor, gave me an inquiring look. I was out of breath.
“Have you seen this guy . . . he’s Korean . . . he’s my client . . . he has Down Syndrome.”
I started to unzip my backpack to show her his picture.
“Try the bathroom. Some Chinese guy’s been in there all afternoon.” She spoke calmly, like she’d done it all before.
No. It couldn’t. But it could. I knocked on the door. Chul! I called. This was my last hope. A dingy donut shop bathroom. I missed New York terribly right then. The safety of my parents’ West Village apartment. I saw myself curled up on the living room couch reading a book. Lackadaisically opening the packed fridge to look for a snack. Doing a crossword puzzle on my brother’s bed while he threw a baseball against the wall above my head. The toilet flushed. I heard muffled noises. The water ran. A paper towel dispenser rattled.
The door opened.
“Ala!” he said. He pointed to the bathroom where he’d just been and smiled. He shook my hand vigorously and patted me on the back. He pointed outside and said, You. I asked him where he’d been. He shrugged, like he didn’t like this line of questioning, and said, Ala!
I gave a big sigh. Forget New York. I called his family. I called the office. I wanted to sing in the streets.
We rode the 71 home together, side by side on those shiny blue seats. I looked out the window and winced at the memory of having lost him. It was a reality I wanted to excise from this day. Yet there he was, safe with me, wearing his backpack and muttering happily to himself; his small, dry hands were folded in his lap. I felt like telling strangers on the bus, tired people, lugging grocery bags after a hard day of work, that I’d found him. It was a triumph. I, Alex, had found my calling. I would stick to this. I would never look dull-eyed, like the job coaches I’d seen, bored and lethargic, leading a pack of forgotten sheep. I would be the one who really cared.
Art by Yvonne Martinez.