Sunday, December 25, 2005

LIT: A Story for Your Christmas

He Loves New York, and It Loves Him Right Back
By MANNY FERNANDEZ, The New York Times, December 25, 2005


Among New York City's many powers is its capacity to tolerate and nurture those obsessed with it.

Yuki Endo was just 10 years old when the city first took hold of him. His life in New York might have been a lonely one after his mother moved him here from Japan in early 1996. He was born with a rare chromosome disorder that left him disabled and makes it hard for him to speak clearly.

But in the decade since, the city has nurtured Yuki in small, graceful ways and become his best friend. Through a quirky combination of luck and his own bottomless curiosity, he has formed a kind of extended family out of the firefighters, doormen, security guards, teachers, librarians and shopkeepers he meets on his daily explorations.

He is a landlocked Huckleberry Finn, restlessly caught up with the mystery and minutiae of New York, at least until 7 p.m., when his mother wants him home. He writes poetry about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and memorizes train conductors' announcements. He entertains firefighters by singing to them in their firehouses, unaccompanied by music, because he likes to. His first home is an Upper East Side apartment; his second is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has spent so many afternoons inside the Met that the security guards call out his name when they see him. He tells them what subway lines to avoid because of weekend service changes, which he monitors religiously.

"I want to make sure they won't be late to the museum," explained Yuki, now 20.

It is easier during the holidays to see the city as children see it, not as a faulty municipality, not as a city of strangers, but as a snowy dream world where the uniformed ranks of firefighters, security guards and doormen all know your name. Yuki's New York is such a place.

"A good soul, passing through," one doorman, Tom Flynn, said of Yuki.

Mr. Flynn, 43, works at 1105 Park Avenue and has known Yuki for years, first meeting him as the firefighters and others did, when Yuki simply stopped by to introduce himself and say hello. Many of the workers Yuki has befriended think of him as an adopted little brother, and though some have a hard time understanding everything he says, they give him something they offer few others in the middle of their workdays: their time.

Mr. Flynn and other doormen on the Upper East Side have stood inside their lobbies looking over Yuki's schoolwork. Last Sunday, firefighters with Engine 22, Ladder 13 on East 85th Street invited him to their annual holiday party. One evening several years ago, three boys chased Yuki down a street. They wanted his money. He ran to an apartment-building security guard he knew and hid behind him. The burly guard turned to the boys giving chase and minced no words, telling them, "He's with me."

Unofficial Tour Guide

One recent morning, Yuki stood at a computer in a lush, darkened corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He typed in a long number: 62.233.14. It is the collection number for one of 19 objects in the museum's American Wing that makes up a glass and bronze Tiffany desk set, including a letter opener and other items.

Yuki memorized the number. He has lived on the Upper East Side, within walking distance of the museum, since arriving in New York. He went to the museum once when he was a seventh grader at Simon Baruch Middle School on East 21st Street. He liked it so much that he turned it into a personal after-school program for much of his adolescence, stopping by so often - sometimes two or three times a week, sometimes more - that he has become a kind of permanent visitor.

Yuki knows his way around the museum as well as any tour guide. He has no problem getting a security guard to sign a special pass allowing him to use a computer in a library usually reserved for researchers. Staff members let him into the museum free. "He's like family," one security guard said.

The guards wear blue jackets, ties and stern expressions, taking seriously their jobs to secure one of the world's largest art museums. Yet when Yuki steps around the corner of a hallway many of them will inevitably make the not-so-serious gesture of extending their right hand, palm out. Yuki throws them a quick high-five.

Spellbound by more than two million works of art, playfully adrift amid a collection that spans 5,000 years of world culture, he speed-walks among tourists in his blue-and-white Nike sneakers and backpack, holding one of the museum's walkie-talkie-style audio guides at his chest like a metal detector in a hunt for buried treasure. He does not horse around inside, walking quietly beneath the gaze of Rembrandts and Vermeers.

With every step, the world passes him by, framed, encased, rendered pristine. Over here is one of his favorite pieces of Iranian art. Over there is another favorite, Robert Blum's "Ameya," a painting of a Japanese street vendor that dates to the late 1800's. "It reminds me of my country," Yuki explained.

Yuki has black, unkempt hair and wears a necklace with a clip that holds keys, a Tokyo Disneyland pendant and his Velcro wallet. He stands about 5 feet, not much taller than some of the children he walks past in the museum.

Though 20 years old, he is more of a boy than a man. When he gets a Slurpee at 7-Eleven, he combines two flavors in one cup, because it seems like a fun thing to do. When he gets a microwave pizza pocket, he pours cheese sauce on top, because he can. He reads children's books and watches children's movies and writes his own fanciful short stories, including one about a remote-control toy fire truck that ran a red light at Third Avenue and caused an accident.

It is easier for Yuki to write his thoughts than to speak them. Yuki has trouble communicating with people, the words and sentences at times tumbling slowly from his lips and at other times leaping out all at once in an inarticulate jumble. Security guards, doormen and others have to listen carefully, with patience, to make sense of what he says.

Yuki has a genetic abnormality. In Yuki's case, a tiny part of Chromosome 18 is missing. Such abnormalities can lead to a variety of physical and mental disabilities, some more severe than others. Chromosome 18 deletions affect an estimated 1 in 40,000 births, said Jannine Cody, founder and president of the nonprofit Chromosome 18 Registry and Research Society.

"People don't even know these sorts of things exist," said Dr. Cody, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "Everyone knows about Down syndrome, but there's all these other chromosome abnormalities that are much more rare."

Yuki does not think of himself as disabled. His mother, Yoko Endo, said doctors in Japan told her Yuki would never learn English if she brought him to the United States. She is proud of him for proving them wrong. "I know he's not going to be completely like us, like height or mentality," said Ms. Endo, 44. "But to me, this is it, fortunately. He could be more bad, but this is it."

Ms. Endo lives with Yuki in a two-bedroom apartment on East 95th Street that they share with two friends. She is writing a book about her life in America and said she supports Yuki by working as a freelance Web designer. Over the years, she has expanded the boundaries of the area her son could explore, block by block, giving him unsupervised independence.

"You can't hold a child to grow up," she said, "so that's why I just let him go."

Many of those Yuki has met on his travels do not know the specifics of his condition. Yuki's attitude - blissfully refusing to acknowledge any difference between himself and others - becomes contagious. While a student at the High School for Environmental Studies on West 56th Street, he was known for getting teachers and students to sign petitions for various causes and for greeting people not with a handshake, but by gently touching his head to their shoulders in a kind of head-hug. Though he graduated in June, he goes back every Wednesday to help students recycle their garbage.

"He seems like he doesn't even notice his disability," said James Hansen, a wildlife conservation teacher. "He just plows right through that, like it's not even there."

At the graduation ceremony in a Lincoln Center concert hall, when Yuki's name was called he was greeted with loud applause and cheers. Fellow students gave him a standing ovation.

A Stickler for the Rules

On a cold December afternoon, Yuki sat on a Manhattan-bound A train. He was returning from a long trip to Queens. He had the urge to eat pancakes at a diner he had become interested in, the Rockaway Sunset Diner, not far from the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach. Taking a trip to the beach in snowy, chilly weather did not strike him as unusual. It was a big day for Yuki: new subway rules had taken effect that week.

Yuki is fascinated with the tiniest of the city's intricacies: the toll-free number (#3333) dialed at subway pay phones to hear automated service information and changes; the elevator at the Met that people often confuse for a gallery room when the doors are open because of its wood paneling and display case; the long-forgotten news that earlier this month southbound F trains were operating on the D line from West Fourth Street to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue, an announcement of which Yuki carried in his backpack.

He often stands in subway cars carefully reading the public service messages displayed above the seats, singing the words out loud as if they were lyrics to a romantic ballad.

He also sings for neighborhood firefighters. At the Engine 22 firehouse on East 85th Street and Engine 44 on East 75th Street, he gives performances in the kitchen, belting out Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind."

Engine 22 used to keep a copy of his report card on the refrigerator. "He's a good kid," said Lt. Dennis Stanford of Engine 44. "He's surprising, the things that he comes up with."

Yuki knows what he wants to do for a living: He wants to be a firefighter, bus driver, train conductor and tour guide. There is some uncertainty about his future in New York. Ms. Endo said she is considering leaving the country within a year or two. She said she would like to see her son go to college someday, but because of the possible move she said those plans would wait.

Yuki thinks of college as a far-off, out-of-reach place. Asked if he ever thought about going to college, he said, "Only in my dreams." Then he said that he had never been to summer camp and that he wanted to go there, too.

On the train, Yuki pulled out a brochure from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority detailing the new rules. He read the rules aloud for the benefit of his fellow riders, some of whom tried their best to ignore him. One new rule in particular he repeated over and over, stating in a conductor's tone that as of Dec. 5 it was a violation to place one's foot or bags on an empty seat. A woman seated across from him had her legs up on the empty seat next to her.

"Am I violating by having my feet up here?" she asked Yuki. Yuki said yes.

She did not take offense. Instead, she put her white sneakers back on the floor and started chatting with him. "They say in the future," the woman told Yuki, "our world is going to be somewhat Communist."

Yuki handed her the small white brochure he had been reading from and sat down next to her. Moments ago, they were strangers on a train, but no more. She confided in him her many theories about the state of the world. Yuki listened, and talked about the transportation authority. She asked him his name. Then she stood up as the train pulled into her stop.

As she stepped out the doors, she turned around and called out, as if to an old friend, "Bye-bye, Yuki."