“Comedy is acting out optimism.”
— Robin Williams (1951–2014)
William Chi-Kung Chu was born an entertainer. He was also born with a congenital heart defect.
Within minutes of being delivered into the birthing suite at Mount Sinai Doctors – Chinatown, William turned blue and a medical emergency was declared. An initial ultrasound pronounced William to have a hole in his heart, a big one—a ventricular septal defect; this was serious. Consultation with pediatric cardiologists, however, revealed that William in fact had a more complex developmental abnormality of the heart known as Tetralogy of Fallot; this was very serious.
Little William would start to cry, turn blue, then lose consciousness every time he attempted to breastfeed. His mother, Mrs. Lola Chu, found the uncertainty around William’s health and well-being—and especially the hushed whisperings of the medical and nursing staff—to be infuriating. She wanted to know what was wrong with her son, and she wanted him to be cured of any imperfection that she’d somehow passed on to him immediately . . . if not sooner.
William underwent his first open heart surgery at just three weeks of age. A further procedure was required nine months later after which his medical team pronounced the treatment to be an unparalleled success. Mrs. Chu was never completely satisfied with this declaration, however, and she continued to worry about William’s health daily for the rest of his life.
William was always aware of a vague sense of vulnerability when it came to his heart, but, despite his testing the limits of its capacity to the absolute extreme, William’s heart never failed him until the very last day of his life.
Even before he could sit up and look around at the world, William was entertaining people. As an infant, William discovered that making certain facial expressions made people laugh, so he would make those faces at anyone in his vicinity, over and over, instinctively seeking to elicit smiles and laughter from whoever was nearby. When he was old enough to dress himself, William started dressing in brightly colored outfits and funny hats to get even bigger smiles, and louder laughs. By the time he was four, William was performing stand-up comedy routines for family, neighbors, strangers on street corners, and anyone who would stand still long enough to listen to his quirky brand of slapstick. In fact, William was telling jokes before he could recite the alphabet. When school came along, mathematics, science, history, and other such mundane topics were of no interest at all to William; all he ever wanted to do was to tell amusing anecdotes and make people laugh.
Another feature of William's natural temperament, that he also exhibited from the very earliest age, was his inability to stay still; he was in perpetual motion. For William, there was always some other place to be or some other thing to do that was preferable to remaining where he currently was. William could never understand how, or indeed why, people could do the same thing repeatedly. Boiled down to its essence, William was easily bored.
Prior to commencing school, Mrs. Chu took William to see several doctors and child psychologists who gave him various multi-lettered diagnoses—ADD, ADHD, ODD, OCD—but Mrs. Chu was never happy with this type of labelling. She felt it was a cop-out by the medical profession whose members were clearly rapidly becoming lazy and ignorant. Mrs. Chu staunchly resisted their pressure to put William on medication for his hyperactivity and his inability to focus on tasks until the year he turned seven. By this time William was consistently performing poorly on school assessment tasks, and his classroom behavior was becoming increasingly problematic for his teachers, and disruptive for his fellow students. A trial of Adderall XR was agreed to, but the headaches and dizziness that came with the drug were intolerable to William, and he secretly flushed the tablets down the toilet for six months until Mrs. Chu caught him in the act, and they both agreed to give up the charade.
William was overjoyed when Adam McCall moved into the downstairs apartment of their building on Eldridge Street. Even though Adam was only four when they met, and William had already turned five, he knew immediately that Adam was going to be a great friend. Prior to Adam’s arrival, Mrs. Chu would occasionally play a board game with William, or read him a story, but she always seemed to be distracted, mumbling constantly to herself, and William never found her very much fun to be around.
William’s father, Lawrence Chu, had been a much more engaging parent for William when he was little. Lawrence had possessed a calm, gentle nature that was perfect for dealing with a hyperactive toddler like William. They would play ball endlessly together on the footpath outside the apartment building on warm summer evenings, or sit on the stoop and count birds and airplanes as they passed overhead. Lawrence would also regularly push William around the block on his scooter, summer or winter, no matter the weather. This action was entirely an excuse for Lawrence to stop at his favorite ice cream shop on Allen Street without Mrs. Chu knowing; Lawrence loved everything sweet, and not surprisingly had developed diabetes as a result. William remembered fondly having his favorite coconut and lychee ice cream dribbling down his hands and forearms, and even dripping onto his feet and toes. Lawrence would frantically clean William up with one of his large handkerchiefs before they arrived home to ensure Mrs. Chu didn’t find out about his secret indulgence.
But Lawrence had mysteriously disappeared when William was only three. This had confounded and angered William at the time, who couldn’t understand why his father was no longer present in his life. Whenever he asked his mother about it, however, she would fly into a rage and tell him to go to his room, so William eventually decided not to bother her about it anymore. The mystery of his father’s disappearance continued to fester in the depths of William’s psyche, however, and he decided that he would find out, one way or another, why his father had suddenly left without any explanation.
Unlike his distracted mother, little Adam found William’s company to be completely captivating. Adam followed William wherever he went, and he never tired of hearing William’s jokes and stories. William discovered that he could use Adam as a sounding board when he was developing his comedy routines. Some days William would declare that they were Batman and Robin, other days The Lone Ranger and Tonto (William thought it a great joke to have Adam be a horse). Occasionally William would even suggest Bonnie and Clyde (it was even funnier to have Adam be a girl). William was so happy to have found himself a willing sidekick and an enthusiastic partner-in-crime.
As the boys grew up in the tough neighborhood of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, their adventures together became progressively more daring, and potentially more dangerous. William had discovered early in life that he loved the thrill of stealing items of food from the market stalls that were scattered around the streets of nearby Chinatown. Initially William would choose easy targets such as an apple, a peach, or a small bunch of bananas. Later William’s shoplifting exploits escalated, and his targets became bigger and more elaborate. He loved to challenge himself to find ways of outwitting a storeowner so he could steal a box of donuts, or a cream cake that was tucked away behind the glass of the shop counter. Adam would act as William’s lookout and accomplice, and over time they became a prodigious team, able to hoodwink even the savviest business owners out of precious bounty.
On more than one occasion, however, the boys were caught in the act of stealing these food items, and they would then be marched unceremoniously back to the apartment building on Eldridge Street where they would be forced to confess their crimes to Mrs. Chu and Bernard. Because of the boys’ relative innocence and their inherently good natures, the police were never involved, but Mrs. Chu’s wrath more than made up for the omission. Eventually the boys’ reputation around Chinatown grew to such an extent that they were easily spotted by most of the storeowners, and their shoplifting efforts were often thwarted before they began. William’s answer to this obstacle was not to cease his petty pilfering, however, but to take their adventures further afield.
There was nothing even remotely malicious in the boys’ playful and harmless petty crimes; it was all just a bit of fun. What was unusual, perhaps, was their commitment to giving all the boons of their shoplifting to the transient homeless population who lived in cardboard shanty towns under the raised highways by the East River. William and Adam had both realized at a relatively young age, through their encounters with the homeless, that they were incredibly lucky to be securely sheltered, clothed, and well fed, and they both innately felt that the right thing to do was to help these unfortunate souls. The boys called their exploits Robin Hood, and over time their notoriety in the Lower East Side spread to the point where shopkeepers would save food items to give to the boys for distributing to the homeless. William and Adam loved seeing the joy on the faces of the homeless men and women when they turned up with various delicious morsels and sweet treats.
“Hey Adam, check out the look on Skinny Scruff’s face,” William whispered quietly into Adam’s ear. The boys—well-hidden up a tree some 30 meters from where the thin, bearded homeless man stood smelling and stroking the papaya they’d just deposited in the encampment—were not quite out of earshot of the shanty’s residents, and they didn’t want to be discovered there. “He just found the papaya. I don’t think he’s ever seen one before.”
“Oh man, that’s so cool. Gimme the binoculars. Hey, do you think he has a knife to skin it and cut it up? Oh . . . no, that won’t be necessary. Looks like he’s going to eat the whole thing, skin and all. Well, I guess it’ll still taste just as good.”
William and Adam were yet to personally meet the homeless men and women they were feeding on a regular basis—that would happen a few years later—but they loved being a part of the discovery process, especially when something particularly delicious or rare was on the menu. When William was twelve, he’d managed to steal a whole cured ham from one of the grocers in Little Italy, and this had caused a great deal of excitement amongst the twenty or so men and women who were the inhabitants of the recipient cardboard village at the time.
The year William turned thirteen he experienced an intense surge of hormones that signaled the arrival of puberty. Most of his male peers—most notably his best friend Adam McCall—had already gone through their adolescent transition and were relentlessly pursuing the objects of their sexual desire. William now turned his attention in this direction also.
William found introducing himself to girls and getting to know them on a superficial level, was quite easy and natural. With girls that William found particularly attractive he quickly became adept at sneaking a kiss, hoping for progression onto the more advanced stages of the sexual act. Once the first kiss was over, however, William found himself to be a fish out of water. The kissed girls would inevitably ask William how he felt about this or that . . . but he didn’t feel anything. He knew a lot, he had a lot to say, he could make you laugh, he knew what he wanted, but William just didn’t feel any emotion about such things. In fact, if he was being entirely honest, William wasn’t exactly sure what emotions were.
“Am I actually supposed to feel them, or is it more like something that just happens without you knowing about it? Aren’t emotions just for girls anyway?” he queried of Adam one day.
Either way, this issue became William’s stumbling block as he failed again and again to convince his dates to let him feel their breasts or remove even a single item of clothing. It seemed that unless he felt something more deeply for them, he was stuck at first base; this confused and confounded William.
It didn’t take William long to cotton on to what was needed, however. He began to fabricate lies about what he was feeling in order to coax his female quarry into bed. Most of the time, of course, his insincere emotional confessions were seen through, and they would often be followed by a sharp slap on the cheek, or a cynical verbal insult.
In the final analysis, William’s low conversion rate with girls didn’t bother him too much. Really, he was much more interested in perfecting his stand-up comedy routines and feeding his rapidly growing obsession with extreme sports than having sex anyway.
William managed to maintain just enough focus to successfully graduate from high school, but it was a close call. It was only in response to Mrs. Chu’s nagging that he managed to do so. William longed to be off travelling the world and enjoying the cornucopia of delights that were on offer out there, but Mrs. Chu had decreed that William would not be allowed to go traveling until he graduated high school.
After successfully finishing high school in 2015, William took a short technical college course to qualify as a chef’s assistant. “There’s always going to be work available, and a little money to be made, helping out in a kitchen wherever I go; everyone has to eat every day, right?” William rationalized.” With this simple money-making skill under his belt, William was ready to set out on his globe-trotting adventures.
William had discovered as a teenager that the thing he loved to do most in the world was snowboarding. Well, snowboarding and abseiling. Oh, and skydiving. And surfing. There were many activities that William loved to engage in, but over the years snowboarding had become his number one passion. As his eighteenth birthday approached, William’s life goal had narrowed down to one thing: finding the most perfect, pristine, untouched snowy mountain slope that he could snowboard down. If he achieved that goal, William had decided, he would feel fully alive and free, and that was what he felt he needed more than anything else in life. He wanted to be his own person, in charge of his own destiny, making his own decisions, with nothing and no one tying him down. William especially didn’t want to have society telling him what to do. The prospect of taking on a nine-to-five job and having a wife, children, and a mortgage as shackles to limit his freedom was his worst possible nightmare.
William had taken to snowboarding like a duck to water, and after only a few years he was an expert. Joining the snowboarding circuit was simple, and the trail was easy to follow. Wherever he went there were like-minded, free-spirited travelers who would give him advice that would help him on his quest.
William travelled light, and he could sleep just about anywhere. This was usually on the floor or sofa of one of the many people he met on his travels, or in the passenger seat of the ride he had just hitched. Occasionally he would stop and find work in a restaurant kitchen to make a little money when he needed some. As he gained more proficiency as a snowboarder, he was also able to find work as a snowboarding instructor, at which he quickly became skilled and very popular. By this time, William could charm the pants off just about anyone, and here was another stage where he could put his storytelling and comedic talent to the test.
It was during his first world travel adventure that William discovered another passion: tattooing and body piercing. In every place he stopped, William would find the most respected practitioner of these art forms and add to his rapidly growing collection. Small strategically placed tattoos quickly gave way to extensive elaborate designs. In just six months he had both arms fully tattooed, and he’d progressed to working on his lower legs. His first piercing, in his left ear lobe, had been acquired—much to Mrs. Chu’s horror—at home in New Eden on his fifteenth birthday. By the time he turned twenty, William had five piercings in each ear, two in his lower lip, one in each eyebrow, and a sizable stud through the middle of his tongue. He also had several piercings that never saw the light of day, and which Mrs. Chu would have had a conniption over if she ever found out about them.
On the first of William’s world travels he was absent from New Eden for a little under three years. He travelled extensively throughout the USA and Canada, then found his way to New Zealand and Australia during the northern summer. From there it was a brief stint in Japan, then to Europe, which absorbed his attention for quite some time, with so many ski-slopes to explore, and so many fascinating people and cultures to experience.
William then journeyed to South America where he found incredible rugged mountain ranges but was disappointed that there was no way to ascend them. He even took a brief tour to Antarctica, but again the spectacular icy peaks were impossible to climb, so his dream of snowboarding these pristine slopes was unattainable. Around the globe he went, chasing winter wonderlands from north to south, and back again.
During his travels William met many interesting people, many of whom had fascinating tales to tell. Little by little William realized that there was a common story being told by almost everyone. The Earth was dying; humanity was killing it. Of paramount importance to William in these reports was the factual knowledge that global warming was melting snowfields and ancient glaciers, and that William’s precious snowy habitats were shrinking.
William became disillusioned about being a member of the human race that was causing this global catastrophe, and he vowed to change his ways. William also had to admit, finally, that the sometimes frankly psychotic rantings of his mother on the issue of climate change and global warming were entirely accurate. As he started to piece this disturbing puzzle of global destruction together, he made a resolution to help save the earth and its snowfields; he decided he was going to use his life to make a difference.
In early February of 2018, William finally found his dream slope. He was in the far north of India where the borders with Pakistan become somewhat vague and often disputed. He’d joined up with a duo of base-jumpers and their support crew who were filming a documentary that was being heavily sponsored by one of the jumpers’ wealthy families. Much like William, the two filmmakers were determined to find and document the ultimate thrill—in their case the perfect base-jump—the one final experience that would put an end to all their seeking . . . or at least that's what they told themselves.
The team was fully equipped with a specially modified helicopter that could ascend to the extreme altitudes of the Himalayas. William had spotted his perfect slope during a reconnaissance flight a few days before, and the crew happily dropped him off on the way to their jump site.
William zigged and zagged. He swooped and swayed. He slowly curved in long graceful arcs, and he sped straight ahead like an arrow. He jumped over rocky ledges and sped through icy tunnels. He was on fire, with one hundred percent of his attention focused on this impossibly perfect moment. From top to bottom he raced for over an hour on untraveled virginal slopes. He felt more alive than he thought was humanly possible.
When William finally reached the tree line and his perfect run ended, he howled and whooped for joy, and then . . . he felt empty inside. What now? He’d scaled his highest peak, his Everest. He’d achieved his life’s ultimate goal, and now he felt completely bereft. In fact, he felt so empty it was like he was hollow inside. Life felt more meaningless than it had ever felt before this supposedly perfect moment.
What the hell do I do now?
William returned to New Eden City, to the Lower East Side, to Mrs. Chu and the other residents of Eldridge Street, and we all welcomed him home enthusiastically. None of us was game to say so directly, but William was clearly different. Before he’d left on his travels William had always been bright and breezy; cheering everyone up had always been his number one priority; keeping it light and bubbly was his trademark. Now, William carried around with him a heaviness, and he was frequently difficult to communicate with. We would even find William sitting silently doing nothing at all, deeply lost in thought.
William eventually started to communicate his deep fear for the future of life on Earth with Adam, who listened intently and earnestly. Adam quickly picked up on the seriousness of William’s commitment to helping save the planet. William had come up with a plan that he was convinced was the best way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a large enough scale to make a difference to the rapidly accelerating problem of global warming. His plan involved pinpointing the individuals and companies who were most to blame for the production and emission of the damaging greenhouse gases, find out something about them that would discredit them publicly, and then use that knowledge to shut them down. High-level ecological blackmail.
“We have to start at the top and dismantle the whole destructive colossus by pulling out its root, otherwise there’s no way we can make even the slightest bit of difference. We have to treat the cause, rather than the effect.” That path was proving to be painstakingly slow and impossibly difficult; a task beyond the scope of millions of good-hearted individuals, including William’s mother, who were dedicating their lives to it.
And so, Save Mother Earth from Greedy Malevolent Autocrats (SMEGMA) was born, with William Chu as its founder and leader, and Adam McCall as his 2-I-C. Bernard and I were nominally SMEGMA members, and Mrs. Chu was named an external advisor (she couldn’t possibly hold a formal position with a group that had such a ridiculous name).
William and Adam set about finding their first target. They agreed with Mrs. Chu’s suggestion that it was logical that their first campaign should be small and manageable, just this once, so they looked to their own backyard.
For many years there’d been talk of a mean-spirited and greedy landlord in Chinatown, a man named Ha Long Tran, who was becoming increasingly infamous for praying on the weak and disenfranchised. In fact, it was Ha Long Tran that William suspected was responsible for the disappearance of his father.
Ha Long Tran had been born in Vietnam, and while he was not tall, he was a big man. He was well-known for his fierce temper, and for the posse of threatening looking security guards who accompanied him wherever he went. With only a minimal amount of effort the boys discovered that Tran’s office was just a few blocks away on Avenue C.
It also didn’t take William and Adam long to find local residents who had stories of Tran’s wrong doings, and the magnitude of his injustices quickly became apparent. Not only was he steamrolling and blackmailing thousands of people out of their hard-earned money by demanding under-the-counter bribes to keep these individuals and businesses safe, but he was also single-handedly pumping more toxic gases into the New Eden atmosphere than possibly any individual in the city via his chain of dirty, unhygienic, and ill-equipped laundries. Ha Long Tran was operating not only outside of the law, but also outside of the moral conscience of the environmentally awakening consciousness of humanity at the start of the 21st century: SMEGMA had found its first target.
William’s plan involved planting a bugging device in Ha Long Tran’s office. This was achieved with minimal fuss as the young men’s childhood criminal activities finally paid tangible dividends. William, Adam, Bernard, Mrs. Chu and I listened in amazement as the enormity of Tran’s transgressions were broadcast into Bernard’s Bookstore. It took less than a week before the information they were hoping for was broadcast and recorded for future use if needed.
Ha Long Tran was an illegal immigrant. If this fact were to be anonymously reported to the U.S. Border Control, he would be shipped home to Vietnam tout de suite, and he would never be allowed to return to America ever again.
An anonymous tip was lodged by SMEGMA with the New Eden branch of the Customs and Border Protection Services, and William and Adam were positioned discretely across the street on Avenue C later that day when the officers arrived to escort Ha Long Tran away from Chinatown and New Eden for the last time. The first victory for SMEGMA was very sweet indeed.
And so, William’s story also arrives at the all-important point in time: July 4th, 2020.
Impressed by the boys’ success in taking down Ha Long Tran, Mrs. Chu has been forced to admit the brilliance of William’s scheme and has deigned to guide the group—from a suitable distance given her high profile in US politics—provided the name is changed. As a result, SMEGMA has been renamed the Eco-Vigilante Action Group, E-VAG. Bernard, Amir, Alex Abercrombie, and I, along with seven other new members, have swelled the number of members of E-VAG to thirteen. The small group has a lot of enthusiasm buoying its forward momentum, and the gathering in Bernard’s Bookstore tonight is buzzing with excitement.
It’s E-VAG’s first meeting since the coronavirus lockdown began three months ago, and the main item on the agenda is a discussion of the progress of their next campaign. The group’s next target is none other than the mega-famous and uber-wealthy—and quite possibly next President of the United States of America—Ken Abercrombie. E-VAG is planning on bringing Ken and the massive planet-polluter he heads, Abercrombie Industries, down . . .