Finding the American Dream
There is so much we share in humanity, and so much that each of us share in this amazing American experience. Each of us – or our ancestors – picked up their lives from places all over the world, sometimes at great risk, with nothing but the clothes they wore, and came here to find the “American Dream.” I am devoting this column to my dear friend, my “brother,” Mr. Lam, and how he found that dream, with a little help from the NYPD.
In 1987 Jimmy Woods was an NYPD Sergeant, training rookies at the 72nd Precinct, Sunset Park. One day while Jimmy was in the detective squad office upstairs, one of them told him there was a man with a small restaurant who had made a police report because members of the Ghost Shadows, a notorious Chinese gang, were extorting money from him. The detectives had made arrests, but that led to him getting death threats from other gang members. Jimmy left that squad office committed to doing everything he could to help this man he had yet to meet.
He visited Mr. Lam and reassured him that he would be safe. Jimmy then turned that little storefront restaurant into a mini precinct. He would hold “roll call,” assigning his police officers their posts, from inside the restaurant every day. He visited Mr. Lam often, taking a seat in the restaurant and doing his administrative paperwork. Result? The gang members who had attempted to extort Mr. Lam went to jail; the death threats stopped.
Jimmy and Mr. Lam became friends. Jimmy helped him navigate the bureaucratic challenges of getting his wife, son, and daughter here from China. During their chats Jimmy shared with him that when he was a little boy, his mom put chow mein on burger buns. Mr. Lam added that dish to his menu, and called it the “Jimmy Woods Chow Mein Sandwich.” The years went by and Jimmy got promoted and took on a couple of new assignments, taking him out of that Sunset Park neighborhood. Mr. Lam eventually upgraded to a bigger restaurant in Flatbush, and he named it “Dynasty.”
In May, 2000, I became the Chief of Brooklyn South, and Jimmy was my Community Affairs Lieutenant. During our first days and weeks together he took me around the borough to introduce me to all of the elected officials and community leaders. One day he said to me, “Chief, I’d like to introduce you to someone important to me.” That’s when Mr. Lam and I became “brothers.”
A few years later, I was coming out of my mom’s house, on Avenue L, Old Mill Basin, when Mr. Lam was driving by, making deliveries. He stopped his car and shouted, “Brother!” He was so excited to see me, and I was happy to introduce him to my mother. He soon became her second son. I would call her to ask if I could get her something to eat from the neighborhood. Often, she would say, “Oh no; Mr. Lam is coming tonight.” One day there was a big snowstorm, and there were no cars on the road. Mr. Lam walked three miles from his restaurant to bring her food for the week.
As my mom’s abilities diminished, Mr Lam did more and more for her. He would bring her food, take out her garbage, and then when she needed the 24 hour care of home aides, and eventually stopped eating, he would bring food to them. On her last birthday he brought a big cake, and it perked her up so much. She died weeks later. He gave us her last birthday “party.”
This week Mr. Lam celebrated Chinese New Year with his family, but along with the rest of the people of our great country, in five months he will celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, so proud to be an American. He found the courage to make a new start in America, and his family has flourished – and so has our country, because of them, and those like them. I often think of how that must feel for him, and for all of the wonderful people who continue to come to America to make it an even better place. And I remind myself how lucky I am to live here, and to be part of this American experience.
It’s a practice I highly recommend.